Electric Cars

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Given Israel’s issues regarding minimal land, water and energy resources, it’s not surprising it has emerged as a groundbreaking country in clean technology, and “…has built itself a great brand in clean investments,” remarks Jack Levy, a founder of Israel Cleantech Ventures, a venture group dedicated to investing in startups dedicated to developing new ways of coping with dwindling and exhausted natural reserves.

A Better Place, Shai Agassi’s soon-to-launch-solution to vehicle electrification is the kind of project that exemplifies Israel’s high-tech bravura and ability in the clean technology arena. With a limited number of electric cars already ordered for Israel’s roads before the end of 2011, there are another 100,000 ordered, boosting hopes that this will be the electric car to end oil dependence in transportation.

“A Better Place doesn’t want to be a niche company,” says Jack, whose firm was one of the first investors in A Better Place. “They want to be mass consumption.”

As a relatively small Ramat Hasharon-based venture capital firm handling only cleantech investments in Israel, Levy and his partners invested $2 million in A Better Place back in 2007. The drive — no pun intended — and problem-solving capacity displayed by founder Shai Agassi excited Levy and his ICV partners at the company’s early stage. Agassi was finally solving problems plaguing vehicle electrification – namely, density and capacity of batteries, or, in other words, how far can these cars really drive. As Jack describes, Agassi had the key to ending “range anxiety with a battery switch or charge at 100 miles.”

A visit with Levy to A Better Place, located at Pi Glilot, two former gas depots not far from the beaches of Herzliya, offers a unique education in Agassi’s plan for drivers. A few to-be-fleet of cars – Renault’s Fluence Z.E. model – are parked outside, hooked up to the charging stations, humming quietly in the hot sun. Take a test drive and you’ll be pleased with the smooth ride – surprisingly devoid of standard car noise – and prepare yourself for the pièce de renew, reuse, recycle.

A big chunk of any visit to A Better Place is the key to making this work, watching the battery being swapped for another, something that Agassi intends to make easy for all drivers. You don’t even have to get out of the car for the less-than-five-minute switch, which takes less time than getting your car washed. This was the key that brought investors in, explains Levy, a workable solution that could “drive electrification forward without waiting 15 years for a jump in battery technology.”

Indeed, at one of 40 battery switching stations, 9 of which are already operational in Israel, Better Place member drivers will be able to change a battery in less time than it takes the barista to brew a hafuch for sipping when back on the road; no smell, no mess, and most importantly no worries that the car can’t make it to Eilat on one charge. It doesn’t have to.

The impact of Agassi’s impending success can have enormous strategic impact in Israel where consumers will be lured by lower taxes on purchases as well as a program that’s designed to be as easy as choosing a cell-phone carrier. The car price — equivalent to a standard Mazda 3, one of the most popular sedans in Israel — will include all services, from battery switching and chargers to repairs and insurance, about NIS 120,000, and the cars can be leased from A Better Place, as most will be.

For Israel Cleantech, being the country behind a working electric car company “is great,” says Jack. He points out that Israel has eight of the top 100-cleantech companies as named to the Guardian newspaper’s Global Cleantech 100. “We’re a great brand in the cleantech investment world, people are looking to Israel.”